Saturday, February 21, 2009

How to Play Mao

My brother Stephen introduced our family to the game of Mao during Christmas. We were instantly addicted, enjoying the heart-pounding and hand-sweating of a really good card game. It's the kind of game that makes you nervous, stressed out, mad, and very confused, especially if you are playing with my brother Stephen, who shares character traits with the Soup Nazi.

The next week we taught a few of our friends to play Mao. At the time, I was channeling my brother, so I was a dictator and my friends were scared of me. One friend said she'd spent 20 years trying to build up her self-confidence, and she refused to play a card game that made her doubt her self-worth. Really makes you want to play, doesn't it?

I've gotten much nicer in playing Mao over the past couple of months as my brother's influence has worn off because I might lose all my friends otherwise. But really, the game is fun largely because of the odd mixture of politeness and severity that is required to play it correctly. But if I have to play Nice Mao with my friends, it's better than not playing at all.

Mao is a game of rules. There is some debate about whether the game is modeled after Mao Zedong or after the German game Mau-Mau, but in our family we prefer to use the communist dictator theory. It works for us.

So here's the thing: you are really supposed to play the game without explaining the rules. The players are supposed to figure out the rules as you play. But we play by giving a few rules at the beginning of each hand, adding rules as we go. It's best for there to be confusion, really.

You'll need at least 2 decks of cards, no jokers. It doesn't matter if these are complete decks or not. This is a great use for all those decks you have with 43 cards; they don't have to match. Any age probably 7 and up can play. You could definitely do a modified version for younger kids, too. Just don't make them cry. You can play with 3 people, but more is better. If you have a lot of people, you'll need to have a draw stack at each end and one discard pile in the middle.

So here's how you play.
* The dealer deals out seven cards to each player.
Rule 1: The players must not touch the cards while the cards are being dealt, or they will receive a penalty card at the beginning of play.

After the deal, the dealer says something ceremonial, such as: "The playing of the glorious game of Mao will begin with (name person he/she picks) and will go (clockwise/counterclockwise--dealer's choice)." The dealer looks at his cards, and then the players may look at their cards. The dealer then turns up the top card of the stock to begin play.

From here on out, the game is much like an extremely wild version of Crazy 8s. You either play by following suit or number or playing a Jack (wild card), or you draw a card and the play passes to the next player. (You don't play when you draw.) You must play within about 5 seconds or you'll get a penalty card for delay of game.

A word about Penalties! Penalties are pivotal to Mao. When a player is giving a penalty card, he must say the reason for the penalty. If the penalty giver gives a bad call, the player's he's giving the penalty to gives the card back to him and says "Being Wrong." After a penalty is given, the recipient of the penalty card must say "Thank You," or he'll be given more cards until he says "Thank you." So your best bet is just to smile and say "thank you" when you are given a penalty card. Penalty cards are given from the draw deck, not from your own hand. Anyone can give a penalty card, but only one card can be given for each penalty. So, for example, let's say that it's your turn and you are taking too long to play. I will whip a card from the deck and say, "Taking too long." You'll say "thank you," pick up the card, and then complete your turn.

So basically, any time a rule is broken, you should give out a penalty card.

We start with three rules: Jacks are wild, no asking questions* and you must say the name of a spade.
1. For Jacks, this means that you can play a jack on anything (with some exceptions, coming later). If you play a Jack, you must immediately call the suit you wish. So if you play a Jack of hearts, you might call "Spades." If you don't call if fast enough, someone else can choose. Two seconds is enough time.
2. No asking questions means exactly that. Read below for "point of order" to find out what to do if you have a question. If you ask one during play, even a question like "is that my phone ringing?" you'll get a penalty card.
3. Naming the spade means that when you play a spade, you must say, "Ace of spades" or "five of spades" or whatever. If you don't, someone should say, "Not saying spades" and give you a card. And you, of course, say "thank you." Or else.

After a round of that, we add these rules (in no particular order) one at a time on top of the rest of the rules.
Hearts: knock once on the table each time you play a heart. Penalty: a card for "not knocking"
Aces: reverse play direction. Penalties would be given, of course, if someone isn't paying attention and thinks it's their turn, not realizing that the direction has reversed.
Eights: Skip a person. Penalty would be given if someone plays out of turn.
Clubs: Slap your hand three times on the table when you play a club. Penalty: "not slapping."
Twos: If you play a two, you immediately play either another two or a card of that suit. If you don't have one, draw. Penalty for not doing so: one card for "not fulfilling your duty."
Fours: Skip and reverse (like an eight/ace combo).
Sevens: If you play a seven, the next person must play a seven or draw 2 cards. If the next person plays a seven, then the next person must play a seven or draw 4 cards. This goes on until someone has to draw, increasing by 2 each time. Once someone has drawn, the 7 is dead and play can resume. Penalty for not doing so: one card for "not fulfilling your duty."

You can add in any kind of rules you wish as you go along. Ultimately, every number and suit could have a rule attached to it. For example, when you play a King, you have to stand up and bow. Or for fives, you have to say "five" in a weird voice. Or my brother's latest one: whenever a heart is played by the person on your left, you must say, "Happy Birthday, Stephen." He's egocentric like that. My brother Peter added the rule that when a heart is played by the person on your right, you must say "Happy Birthday, Sarah." That was crazy!

Oh, and of course, you have to do all the rules attached to a card. So, for example, if you play a 2 of hearts, you must knock; then you play a 2 of spades on that and say "two of spades"; then you play an 8 of spades on that and say, "eight of spades"; and the play then skips the next person (because it's an 8) and moves on. Got it? If not, you'll get a penalty card.

GOING OUT: When you have one card left, you must say, "Last card." If you don't, someone might catch you and give you a penalty. When you are ready to go out, you must do whatever your card demands first. So, if you play a spade, you have to call it: "Ace of spades." and then you say "MAO!" Mao must be the very last thing you say. If you play a heart and say "Mao" and then knock, you are out of luck. Someone should give you a penalty card, and play proceeds. (Make sure you say "Thank you" and "last card!")

*POINT OF ORDER: This is like a time-out. If you are totally confused, call "point of order." Everyone must put down his cards and take his hands off them. No touching the cards during a point of order, or you'll get a penalty card after the point of order is over. During a point of order, ask any questions you want—just don't touch your cards. This is the time to figure out what the heck is going on and why you just got three penalty cards. When the issues are cleared up, someone clearly says, "Point of Order over," and you may pick up your cards. At this point penalty cards can be given out to anyone who couldn't keep their hands off their cards during the point of order. (And don't forget to say thank you.)

Other penalties include :
Getting angry
Flinching (this comes in after you're a bit practiced and is given when it's not your turn but you think it is and you make an obvious movement to play before realizing it's not your turn)

And so there is the glorious game of Mao according to our family rules. If you Google "card game Mao," you'll find all kinds of sites with various rules. We are still in the beginning stages and so we are adding in rules as we go, tweaking our version of the game.

Have you heard of this game? My brother John was telling his carpool buddy about the game. She knew all about it; in fact, she and her husband's family actually used to rent cabins for weekends so they could play massive games of Mao!

If you haven't heard of it, now you have a new use for all those extra cards you have laying around. Let me know if you play; I'd love to hear what rules you come up with!


  1. Ack! I'm getting stressed out just reading this list. I don't think I'm Machavelian enough to play this game. Remind me not to make you angry. ;)

  2. Oh, how I love this game! So glad you taught it to me in person, though, regardless of how ruthless you are!! :)

  3. Have you played a game called "The Great Dalmuti"? (

    You'd be good at it!

    We like to add the element of utter humiliation and use a variety of hats to represent the roles we are playing. Great game!


  4. I've never played a card game as great as Mao. However I'd like to rename it Obama, seems more up-to-date and true to the times. I mean how much more commie can we get???


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  6. wow! this is great. We got a set of Killer Bunnies for Christmas but I think Mao could challenge our KB addiction. :)

  7. Thank you! I believe I get a penalty card for double possting.

  8. I like this version.

    My personal favorite rule is one that I made myself.

    Each time a card with a full loop is played (including 6, 8, 9, or Q) the player must shout "OH YEAH" like the kool-aid man. Obviously I chose loop cards because of the "O" in them.

    It's a great rule, especially when people take sometimes up to 5 or so rounds to figure it out. They guess and guess but never get it!


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  10. This is described so well and clearly, now to play mao will never be a difficulty. Thanks


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